Few human endeavors ever attain perfection by any objective method. Baseball happens to be one of the few (along with bowling) where a “Perfect Game” can happen. Yes I know that in the NFL a Quarterback can attain a so-called “perfect rating” but it is arrived at by arbitrary and arcane methods and you can’t see it happening. In baseball, you know it’s 27 men up, 27 men out and those last few outs, the last three innings really, are as suspenseful and dramatic as, say, Congress trying to lift the Debt Ceiling.
Yes ice skating, high diving and gymnastics all have what are known as “Perfect Scores” but those are not achieved by objective methods. Better to consider them “Maximum Scores.”
Other than that baseball is filled with The Human Element, where decisions must be made in split-second fashion and the human sensorium and reasoning capacity is taxed to the utmost. The umpires in a baseball game make hundreds of decisions in every game, far more than officials in football, or basketball, or hockey. Every execution of the baseball requires a decision on the part of the umpires.
Umpires being human mistakes happen. I know many fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, and while the Cardinals’ storied history includes 19 National League pennants and 10 World Series championships, talk to any Cardinals’ fan and it won’t be long before the 1985 World Series and first-base umpire Don Denkinger’s blown call will come up. Instead of being the final out in a Cardinals’ World Series victory, the Kansas City Royals had new life, came back to win the sixth game and clinched their only World Series crown the following night. We can discuss the karmic value of the Royals’ having one title for their fans to cherish versus Cardinals’ fans having an eleventh on the shelf, but nonetheless, it shows how umpiring decisions are decisive and can change the outcome for all time.
Last season everyone recalls how Jim Joyce, one of the most respected and well-liked umpires around, a man whose integrity, skill and objectivity have never been questioned, obviously got a call wrong at first on what should have been the final out of the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Gallaraga’s perfect game, now known forever as the Imperfect Perfect Game. It didn’t alter the outcome at all, and in a curious way it cemented both men’s place baseball lore even more than a perfecto would have.
This past week we saw how fatigue and difficult conditions can lead to a flawed decision that did determine the outcome of a perfect game. On Wednesday the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves were engaged in an epic, seven-hour, nineteen-inning struggle. Both teams are involved in pennant races, the Pirates are in their first since 1992. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when the Braves Julio Lugo raced home from third base and was called safe with third baseman Pedro Alvarez’ throw to catcher Michael McKenry was on target in plenty of time but umpire Jerry Meals ruled that the tag was missed, Lugo was safe and the Braves had a walk-off win.
Immediately the chat boards exploded demanding that MLB install a fifth “video umpire” upstairs to rule on such calls. Don’t hold your breath. It’s not going to happen. The recent use of replay by the on-field umpires to rule on boundary plays, i.e., fair or foul, above the home-run line or below, has become accepted and established quite quickly. But as far as safe or out calls, it’s just not going to happen. And it shouldn’t.